Michael Lopez-Alegria interview

You really never know with this job.  Now I’m at a conference, standing across from a man who lead NASA’s international space station.  Now he’s here at the World Conference lecturing us on how to stay safe.




In his talk, he told us about a three tier process by which NASA astronauts are trained in the use of the equipment, so I decide to start there.


“First of all, NASA Astronauts are trained by someone who knows the mechanical system in depth – usually an engineer who has built or installed it.  Someone who has really gotten into the weeds with it.  Next, they are trained by someone with experience using it, usually in the ground team, someone who has experience instructing the system and getting data from it.  Finally, we’d talk to someone how would tell us “what we really need to know”, someone who had been on the shuttle.”

I follow up on the distinction between points two and three – is “two” the people on the ground sending and receiving data, and “three” the people who are actually right there in the space station?

“Yes, that’s right.  The people in the ground team are very smart, but there’s  something you can’t get except by actually being there.”

In his talk, he described how the space shuttle is such a complex system that there is a team for each part, and sub-teams in the teams.  It seems a fragile system – if one thing fails, the whole thing could go wrong.

“I don’t see why it is fragile.  You have each system represented by one person and then they have people reporting to them – the sub-systems.  And the representative of the group talks to the leader.  So if – we have three fuel systems on the shuttle.  If one fails, they go to that group and get the instructions on how to make it work.”

At first I think this is a misunderstanding, that if the systems are so divided, a screw up in one sub-system could cause damage.  But then I remember what he said in his  talk, that at a certain point, you just need to form your team and trust it.  That’s probably the bottom line here.  I change the subject to leadership – academia tends to make people really atomised and not given that much support.  I ask him how he’d turn that around.

“That’s a really good question.  The thing, the main thing would be to form people so that they understand that the team’s goals are more important than their individual goals.  That’s very much present in the navy and in NASA.  But some companies, some institutions are very bad at that – Academia is bad at that,

“Leadership can be learned though.  One thing you have to deal with in the ISS [International Space station] is the interpersonal issues.  For a short trip, people can all hold their breath, but for seven months – that’s another matter.  So they test how people operate under stress.  We get put into stressful situations, where we’re cold, hungry etc. and people learn how to deal with the stress that comes to the fore and avoid confrontation.  It works.

“The army does this all the time – send people away into the jungle or the forest where they have to eat mushrooms to survive for a week.  What’s interesting is that private companies are now doing the same, to learn those skills.”

I noticed this during my time in the Officer Training Corps.

“Yes, if you’ve been in the boy scouts, if you’ve been in the army, anything like that, you get to experience that.  Camping is good for this.

“But I’m not sure it would work in academia – academia tends to attract a certain type and that leads to this kind of atomisation.

“I think the Vision Zero rules get it right, particularly the first and last.  Show leadership and invest in your team.  That’s the beginning and the end of it.

“The walkthrough we do in the navy [a daily ritual where the entire crew of an aircraft carrier walks shoulder to shoulder down the whole length of the aircraft carrier] really helps with integration of the team.”

Of course, I know what most readers are here for: how the hell do you get on a space station?

“How do you become an astronaut?  I started as a test pilot.  I love to fly, but I had an engineering degree, so I asked ‘What does both?’.  Then I applied to be test pilot, and then to fly the space shuttle.  That’s kind of the well-beaten path – John Glenn, Buzz, –

“Michael Collins”, I interject

“He was navy.  So that’s the path.  But these days, really the only requirement is that you have a STEM degree.  With the opening up of commercial flight, it may be easier for you to just make money and buy a ticket.  Sub-orbital – that’s 100 km up, technically space – will cost you about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.  To actually orbit the earth, that’s millions.”

I reflect on the persistence of our gravity well

In his talk, he hoped that a a re-invigorated space race could bring out that spirit of human brotherhood that the space race brought.  The plaque on the moon reads “We came in peace, for all mankind” and these days we seem to have been slipping back from the optimism of that moment

“Well, the plaque may say that, but I think it’s pretty clear that what drove the moon landing was geopolitical considerations.  We were in this race with the Soviets – in those days NASA’s budget was 4.5% of the US government budget.  Today it’s less than half of a percent.

“As to the spirit of brotherhood, well, these days we are cooperating with the Russians to get into space.  So you might say we are further along in this.

“I do think we’ll see NASA go back to the moon.  We’ve been hiding in low earth orbit for so long, I think with these new developments it’s time.

I finally ask him if we’ll hit Mars.

“I really don’t think we’ll get to Mars before another three decades are out.




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